TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Colleges’ “if you’re suicidal, you’re expelled” policies deserve greater scrutiny

A Western Michigan University undergraduate says he was thrown out of school and banned from college premises after being hospitalized for clinical depression.

Jackson Peebles told the Western Herald that, even after his own physician gave him a note clearing him to return to school, WMU initially refused to readmit him, alleging he violated a student conduct code against “[c]ausing physical harm to self or others,” although he neither attempted suicide nor threatened anyone else. (Peebles is now back on campus taking classes part-time.)

The college’s reaction may sound extreme, but it is in fact consistent with “involuntary withdrawal” policies that exist, largely unknown, on the rulebooks of many American campuses.

While it is uncontroversial that a college can remove a student who presents a danger to the safety of others, it is less universally accepted that a college can — or should — remove a student who is suspected of wanting to harm himself.

In a 2009 report, the state of New Jersey’s mental health division expressed reservations about “involuntary withdrawal” as a response to suicidal thoughts, noting that removal from college often separates troubled students from their best source of social support and affordable counseling.

What’s more, expelling a student for exhibiting mental illness may well run afoul of federal disability protections. The Department of Education has found at least two colleges to be in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (or its companion statute, the Rehabilitation Act) for forcibly removing students on the basis of suicide risk, with little documentation that they presented a danger to campus safety.

The SPLC conducted a public records audit of colleges nationwide in 2010 to obtain copies of these withdrawal policies. Notably, many institutions with “involuntary withdrawal” policies on their books actually denied having them. This demonstrates two bedrock principles of open-records reporting. First, don’t take an initial “no” for an answer. Second, phrase your requests for records using as many synonyms and descriptive terms as possible, so that the agency can’t wriggle out of producing documents through an ultra-literal interpretation of your request (“Why no, we don’t have a ‘suicide withdrawal policy,’ we just have this ‘involuntary withdrawal policy for suicidal people.'”).

Reviewing the college’s policy on involuntary withdrawals should be a once-a-year exercise in all student newsrooms. At public institutions, journalists should go further and also ask to see statistics as to how often these policies are invoked, and with what result (e.g., for how long is the student removed, and how many succeed in winning reinstatement or in challenging their removal). Statistics with students’ identifying information removed cannot lawfully be withheld on the grounds of “educational privacy,” no matter what some college attorneys may insist.

Finally, explaining the process by which an expelled student may challenge the college’s decision is itself a public service. Due process requires that, if emergency circumstances do not allow for advance notice and a hearing before a student is removed from a public college, the student must be given a prompt post-expulsion hearing with an opportunity to confront his accuser and clear his name. If the institution is not providing that minimal level of procedural fairness, then it not only is exhibiting questionable sensitivity to those with mental health issues, but also violating the law.